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I've been doing online marketing for a really, really long time. I've been fully self-employed for 11 years now, but I made my first dollar online in the mid-90s. In between now and then, I've built hundreds of websites and consulted for hundreds of companies.
A LOT has changed in that time, but one thing hasn't – change is a constant. Nothing stays the same for long. Sites and tools change their user interfaces, Google changes their site speed standards, social networks change their algorithms, and ad networks get increasingly sophisticated. We have to constantly evolve to stay in the game.
1 | Your Website's Income Isn't as Stable as You Might Think…
A site that gets tons of Google traffic today could see it drop in half overnight – or worse – if it gets on Google's bad side or finds itself on the wrong side of an algorithm update. I know quite a few people who lost hundreds of thousands of Facebook or Pinterest visitors in the last year or two of algorithm updates. Virtually overnight, many people went from 6-figure incomes to near-poverty wages.
I've known a few people who made most of their income from Google AdSense or Amazon Associates – only to lose it all in an instant when they unintentionally violated some policy. It's not that hard to miss a notification or misinterpret a rule.
Now, that's not to say you can't fix something like that. In some cases, you can reach out to a company if they've penalized you. When it's an algorithm change, you can figure it out and adjust how you do things. Either way, it can take time to get back to where you were. In a worst-case scenario, you might have to buy a new domain and start over (for example, if your primary social network won't reinstate your banned site).
We all like to think it will never be us – that the people who get hit are doing terrible thing – but it's not always the case. I've seen plenty of great bloggers and reputable companies suffer mindblowing losses due to changes implemented by companies like Google, YouTube, Pinterest, Facebook, and so on. You can assume you'll be the lucky one who never gets hit, or you can prepare yourself for the worst, just in case.
2 | The Smaller You Are, the More Vulnerable You Are
To a certain extent, this should go without saying. Obviously, someone living off a blog earning $5-10k/month is going to be a lot more vulnerable than someone whose blog brings in $25-100k+/month.
If you're earning $25k/month, that goes a long way even in expensive places like NYC or London or California. At that level, you're almost definitely able to save up a very nice emergency fund. If your earnings suddenly drop, you won't be as panicked as if you need that money RIGHT NOW to pay the mortgage. That much should go without saying.
What a lot of people don't realize, though, is that the bigger you are, the more likely you are to get special treatment. When a small blogger breaks a rule of gets penalized, it can be an enormous undertaking to get back in a company's good graces (be it Pinterest or FB or any other social/search site). In most cases, you'll be stuck talking with the contact form or some very entry-level person.
Bigger businesses typically have one or more experienced contacts, and sometimes even get invited to company events. High-profile bloggers often enjoy similar privileges.
You know that Amazon rule about not putting their affiliate links in emails? Have you ever heard of a site called BookBub? They do it on a daily basis.
Ad platform policies? I've worked with dozens of companies that routinely got away the exact same policy violations that got some of my friends shut down. One of those clients even stiffed an ad network for hundreds of thousands of dollars, leaving me as the contact for all their collection calls. Gee, thanks.
When you're really big, you have a certain amount of security that isn't available to the average blogger or small business owner.
So Let's Get to the Point Here…
In case you're wondering where I'm going with this, the point I'm trying to make is that even though things seem good and stable and you're making a solid blogging income, you have to remember it could change at any moment. It doesn't matter that you've made $5-8k/month, every month, for the last 3 years. The next algorithm change could be the one that gets you.
And that's where we come to back burner sites…
What's a Back Burner Site?
A back burner site is one you set up and build slowly, while not allowing it to be the major focus of your effort. You research the niche, buy the domain, create the social media pages, set up the site (usually with a very simple WordPress theme), build a few links, and drip posts occasionally. I usually publish about 10-20 posts/year on my back burner sites, depending on how much free time I have and how long it takes me to write the posts.
Why Make a Back Burner Site?
So what's the point of this weird low-effort side project? Three things.
First, a back burner site is insurance. Although you COULD wait until your income takes a dive to develop a second site, you'll be starting totally fresh. Search engines trust old sites more. If you've been slowly adding to a site for the last couple of years, you're already indexed and somewhat trusted, even if you've only managed to accumulate a few links and very low social media activity. You're not starting from scratch, and that drastically reduces the time it takes to get your site earning. Depending on age and the amount of work you put into it, it may already be earning a bit.
Back burner sites are also great for fending off burnout. When you spend a lot of time buried in a single topic, it's nice to occasionally move over to a different site and think about something new.
The other benefit is that back burner sites give you opportunities to test out new niches with minimal commitment and effort. I've had some that seem to just take on a life of their own while still in back burner mode, and that's a GREAT sign you should immediately invest more time and energy in the site. More typically, you'll see a small trickle of income – the occasional Amazon commission, a bit of display ad revenue, that sort of thing.
If you see nothing at all – no traffic, no money, nothing – after a few dozen optimized posts, it may be a sign the niche isn't working for you, or you're not doing something right. While these back burner sites aren't intended to be your big money makers, the potential for income should be there. You want to know that if you need them, they're right there waiting in the wings.
What Makes a Good Back Burner Site?
The best back burner sites have a few traits in common.
1 | A Site With “Main Site” Potential
This is not the time or place to build your passion project about rare tie clips of the 1950s. Is there a market for your topic? Is there search volume? What about monetization opportunities? Consider it as if it were your main site, because there's always a chance it could be, either by choice or necessity.
2 | A Topic With Crossover Potential
When you're working on your main site, you're probably also building up a social media following and email list (I hope you are, anyway). While your back burner site will be starting from scratch in many ways, it doesn't have to be starting TOTALLY fresh.
Let's say you have a site about mom-friendly fitness. You talk a lot about workout clothes, fitness DVDs, classes you've taken, and workouts you've done. When you're choosing a back burner site, you're thinking about either a vegetarian recipe page or a female-oriented site about careers in finance and navigating a male-dominated industry.
Assuming all other things are roughly equal, I'd strongly recommend going with the vegetarian recipe site instead of the finance career site. Why? It has more crossover potential. The finance content won't be relevant to most of your fitness site, but fitness-conscious moms love healthy recipes. That's not to say every vegetarian recipe is healthy, but there's enough crossover that you could use your existing audience to drive some traffic.
Remember – we all start from scratch once, but you don't have to do it again. Over time, you can even build an entire network of sites with different shared “content nodes”. My current project map looks a bit like a spider web at this point, with every site having a bit of crossover with at least one other site I own (often several).
What if I Never Need My Back Burner Site?
Sometimes, I'll explain my back burner sites to somebody and they ask, “So what if I put in this work and I never need the site?”
My thought? “Wonderful!”
It's fantastic if your main site makes a good solid income forever. That's the goal, of course. If you end up hitting $50k months and you've got tons of money in the bank and you're confident you'll never need or want your back burner site, that's great. Keep it, stop building it, give it away, do whatever you want.
Yes, you may have spent a bit of time building it, and yes, it sucks to think of any time wasted. For me, though, the benefits I get for such a small investment are totally worth it. I love knowing that if anything should go wrong with my money sites, I've got a few others that could be brought up to speed quickly. It's less important now that I have a number of income-producing sites, but if nothing else, I consider them great tests for possible expansion.
My British TV site started out as a side project, and now it's one of my major areas of focus. I didn't realize British TV was going to blow up like it has, and I wouldn't have been in such a strong position to take advantage of that if I didn't have an aged site right as the big streaming services were starting to take off. I've known people who had similar luck with paleo and keto diets, popunder advertising, and drop shipping blogs.
Do You Have a Back Burner Site?
Are you a full-time blogger or aspiring full-time blogger? Do you have a back burner site, or have any plans to build one? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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